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V. Umashankar: ‘Now there are just two agencies responsible — the MCG for front-end work and the GMDA for back-end work’

‘Gurugram must be dealt with as a single city'

Civil Society News, Gurugram

Published: Oct. 25, 2018
Updated: Mar. 24, 2020

Barely a year after it was created, the Gurugram Metropolitan Development Authority (GMDA) found its Chief Executive Officer, V. Umashankar, transferred. 

An upright and insightful IAS officer with an IIT degree, Umashankar had set up the GMDA from scratch and had just got down to the serious business of ending Gurugram’s chaotic growth and fragmented civic management.

He had also been talking tough with developers and weighing in on behalf of residents. He favoured the cancelling of licences and forfeiting of deposits of companies like the Ansals which hadn’t provided promised infrastructure and owed the government money.  

Umashankar led a complex initiative in urban renewal for which he seemed naturally suited with his meticulous style and capacity for lateral thinking. Right from the time of the public hearings for the setting up of the GMDA, people who interfaced with him invariably came away impressed.

In an interview with Civil Society conducted shortly before the transfer order came, Umashankar spoke of what had been achieved by the GMDA in the brief time since its inception. A process to reverse many years of neglect had been put in place. 

Q: You were commissioner of the Municipal Corporation of Gurugram (MCG) and the CEO of the GMDA. What are the issues the city is facing?  

A lot of good things have happened in Gurugram and the not-so-good things have surfaced in the past few years. The post-Independence story of Gurugram begins with Maruti which brought a new level of development here. Gurugram’s second leap was due to the IT revolution. It leveraged the city’s proximity to the airport and led to private spaces coming up. Property was developed which gave the city a certain infrastructure and ambience that the IT industry was looking for. 

But we went a little too far with that kind of development. The real estate market in India thrives on liquidity. So if normal liquidity is withdrawn, the real estate market collapses and that especially impacts a city like Gurugram which is totally based on the private sector development model.

We went through an extensive consultative process when the GMDA was to be created. We put together people’s reactions and the opinion of experts on the kind of problems we have here. In December 2016 we made a presentation to the cabinet on the structure of the GMDA. We identified certain issues and slotted them under different heads. I think the first problem which is the most serious and usually gets missed is the problem of what is Gurugram.

Q: Why do you say that?

During the consultative process we felt we were not talking about one city but five different cities. You had the HUDA sectors which have been here probably the longest apart from the villages. They had a set of problems entirely different from the private coloniser areas like DLF or Sushant Lok. And if you started talking to people in the new Gurugram areas — that started developing post-2008 — they had completely different problems. They were fighting for basic infrastructure.  The villages and the old city, which had become part of the larger agglomeration, had a different range of problems.

We felt we couldn’t go ahead unless we started unifying the city. That has been a work in progress. Last year we completed takeover of all HUDA sectors by the municipal corporation. HUDA is no longer responsible for internal development except for two sectors — Sector 29 which is purely commercial and Sector 53 where plots are yet to be given out. 

The next step was to start taking over the colonisers’ areas. Here we hit a legal problem. You could say we had to fight our way through the colonisers’ maze. Thankfully, that process has reached its culmination and the first two coloniser areas, Sushant Lok and Palam Vihar, have been taken over by the MCG.  

In a larger philosophical sense our endeavour was to get everybody to start speaking about the same city. Then you can get different agencies to come together and resolve issues. 

Secondly, you had two layers of development. HUDA would do everything in its own areas from sanitation to major roads and so would the MCG in its areas. There has to be a certain level of apportionment of functional jurisdiction. All internal development in sectors now gets done by the MCG including roads and all external development from the main roads is done by the GMDA.

Front-end water supply is carried out by the MCG. We ensure water reaches sector limits. So there is a clear demarcation of what I call the wholesale part and the retail part of development and services.

Solid waste has to be dealt with by a single agency. Any interfaces create a problem. The MCG takes care of solid waste and waste management in general. That process was also concluded fairly painlessly. All this involves a lot of transfers. Roads get transferred from one agency to the next, water supply too, and so on. We have managed to achieve this without causing any inconvenience to citizens. Water supply was transferred without citizens even feeling the change. 

Third is the multiplicity of agencies responsible for services. Now there are just two agencies responsible — the MCG which does the front-end work and the GMDA which takes care of the back-end. This process is yet to percolate entirely. HUDA sectors have felt the change. Private coloniser areas too will see the difference once the MCG starts making its presence felt.

Q: There are many complaints about infrastructure.

If you ask me personally the infrastructure in the city isn’t too bad. There have been jurisdiction issues which have created some infrastructure problems in certain areas. The infrastructure issues in the new sectors are terrible. This is a city that is still growing.

The problem is the model of urbanisation we followed. It has been entirely through colonisation licences. Assume that you issue a licence in 2006. The developer comes back a year later in 2007 with his layout plans, water estimates and the infrastructure he requires. You begin the land acquisition process for roads. That takes five to eight years with litigation thrown in. Only by 2013 will you have some land for roads and there will still be pockets under litigation. You then frame development estimates and start development which takes another two to three years.

Meanwhile the coloniser, who is in a hurry, completes his construction work in four years and starts selling his properties. People begin occupying these places. But no commensurate infrastructure will come in by 2012. There will be a five-year lag. People will complain that they don’t have water, sewage connections or roads.

Noida first built the infrastructure. They sell plots and don’t hand over licences. But, in that case, you must have the liquidity to do so much land acquisition. I believe the Noida model’s day and age are over. It was premised on the assumption that you can acquire land when you want and at the cheapest cost. Both these assumptions are not valid anymore.

Government acquisition of land is expensive and time-consuming. Any development authority based on this model will run into financial trouble.

People will start shifting to the Gurugram model. But we have to ensure that roads and infrastructure come up as properties start getting occupied. So either we crunch the time of acquisition or we tell the developer that four years is a moratorium. A tie-up between the two then happens. This is a policy issue.

The other two major problems of the city are traffic and drainage.

Q: Not water?

No, I don’t think so. There is this scare over water. Nationally, almost 80 percent of water is used for agricultural purposes. Six percent is for domestic consumption and three percent is used by industry. Even with the growth in population by 2030, domestic consumption will go up to nine percent. It is agriculture that is going to face the brunt of the water crisis.

When cities are small they look at their proximate sources of water supply, whether tanks or tube wells. When cities grow, local sources cannot support their population. Water will need to be taken from a perennial source like a river, or a large lake. For us it is the Yamuna.

The problem about water availability in the Yamuna is far more important than the groundwater problem in Gurugram if we are looking at drinking water. It is glaciers in the Himalayas that will affect water supply here. And then no amount of groundwater availability can feed the population of Delhi-Gurugram.

Do we have adequate canal-based river water to supply to citizens? The answer is yes. The problem is we need to get our distribution networks ready. We also have to ensure that water leakages get reduced and that we use recycled water for our non-potable requirements.

The new sectors are currently dependent on water tankers and groundwater. We will be in a position to reach piped water to almost all these areas between December 2018 and March 2019. 

We found that from the water treatment plant to Sector 51, which is the last boosting station, we are losing 30 percent of the water supply. We have not yet counted leakages at the distribution level. So that will take us close to 50 percent. We have started conducting water audits and we are pushing ourselves to plug water leakages.

By about March 2019, the Sewage Treatment Plants (STPs) will treat water almost close to potable levels of about 10 BOD (five is potable). We are now constructing underground tanks and we have laid distribution lines for recycled waste water. We are creating hydrants which can be used to irrigate parks. Laying a distribution system inside sectors will be very expensive.

Q: How much water will be recycled?

About 30 percent. Most developer areas in the new sectors are coming up with inbuilt STPs. In our tariff system, which we have just got approved, we are giving a 50 percent rebate on sewerage charges if you use recycled wastewater yourself on the condition that developers instal an electronic online monitoring system which will deliver the signals of operation to our control room. People won’t be going there to inspect. We will know from the online system whether their STPs are working or not. Group housing societies could instal STPs too. If somebody shows the inclination the rebate automatically becomes available.

I think we have already made a dent. The textile industry is picking up recycled water from us. We are charging them only Rs 3 per kilo litre. The other water would have cost them Rs 10 per kilo litre.

Q: You said drainage is an issue. Every monsoon the city drowns. What are the steps being taken? 

Drainage is a major problem and it is going to take us a while to resolve it. The city is at the foot of the Aravalis. This place has always had run-off. The British constructed the Jharsa bandh, the Chakkarpur bandh and the Badshahpur bandh.  The Jharsa bandh stops the flow of water into the old city area. At that time the rest of Gurugram was just farmland with huge capacity to absorb water.

 As more and more areas got concretised the land’s ability to absorb run-off has reduced substantially, so we are actually seeing a lot of streets becoming rainwater drains. There is an 80-metre elevation difference between Sector 57 and the outfall point of the city. That’s huge. So the water tends to flow naturally here.

There is a certain flow point. Rain from the hills reaches Hero Honda Chowk in four hours, plus or minus 15 minutes. It is a massive amount of water. On August 28 we had the highest rainfall in 10 years of 130 mm in just four hours. The Badshahpur drain near the chowk was taking 800 cusecs of water. The drinking water requirement for Gurugram is 200 cusecs per day. As much water as Gurugram requires for one whole day passed into the Najafgarh drain and into the Yamuna. This is only going to worsen as more areas get concretised. The water is going to find its way into the Badshahpur drain. So we need strategies to tackle this. 

Q: And the problem of intense traffic jams?

You can look at higher-level solutions like flyovers and underpasses and lower-level solutions like alternative forms of mobility. We started a bus service a month ago on one route with 25 buses on a 22-km loop. It’s doing fairly well. We have a ridership of around 8,000. We had estimated around 11,000. We were shocked and revised the fare. The information is that there is a rise in ridership. Gurugram did not have an organised bus service in the past. The level of service is far better than Delhi. It’s been well received and it will be expanded to 11 routes by February 2019.  We decided to start on one route, give the promised frequency and earn a good reputation.

Q: You also have immense traffic around Cyber Hub (an IT centre) and Udyog Vihar (an industrial area). It seems like unmanageable chaos.

It’s the problem of the entry point and centred around the Delhi-Haryana border. That’s where a significant number of these offices are concentrated. These are commuters from Delhi who are not going to shift to buses easily. The proportion of people going to Delhi from Gurugram is less, about 65:35. Both NHAI and GMDA are carrying out projects to decongest the area by creating multiple access points. NH-8 has become a funnel where traffic from all over Delhi and Noida converges. You have to remove the funnel by creating other access points. That is our strategy.